♫ And After All, You’re My Wonderworld ♫
After Balan Wonderworld was announced, I was more than a little eager to get my hands on the game. And with good reason. Directed by Yuji Naka with character designs courtesy of Naoto “Big Island” Oshima, the title, co-developed by Azrest and Balan Company, marks the first time the former Sonic Team boss and Sonic The Hedgehog artist have collaborated since Sonic Adventure over 20 years ago. As a longtime devotee of SEGA’s Blue Blur, how could I not be excited?
With its legendary lineage and whimsical style, Balan Wonderworld certainly seems to have a lot going for it, at least on paper. Yet, all the artistic vision in the world doesn’t mean much if a game isn’t fun to play. As much as it pains me to say this, Balan Wonderworld’s execution doesn’t just miss the mark. It shoots itself in the foot at seemingly every turn. From its nonsensical story to its unresponsive controls and irritating mechanics, it’s a game that’s hard to recommend to even the most stalwart fans of the platformer genre.
Only In Dreams
At first glance, Balan Wonderworld shows signs of promise. The game opens with some gorgeous CGI courtesy of Square Enix’s Visual Works, the talent behind Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, as well as Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. Here we’re introduced to the game’s protagonists Leo and Emma, who both seem to be going through some rough times in their lives. After stumbling into a strange abandoned theater, the pair encounter the game’s jester-like mascot Balan, who promptly spirits them away to Wonderworld. In this dreamlike realm, they can explore troubled individuals’ inner worlds to free them of their worries and negative energy.
Calling Balan Wonderworld‘s story confusing would be a gross understatement. What little plot there is to speak of is shown to the player through animated cutscenes at the beginning and end of each of the game’s 12 worlds. One stage focuses on an elderly man with a passion for cleaning up trash who feels invisible as the townsfolk continue to litter at a rate that would cause Captain Planet to go on a homicidal rampage. Another highlights a young diver confined to a hospital bed after her dolphin companion almost killed her.
However, once you make it through their stage’s second acts and beat the boss fights that follow, all is right with the world. Scuba lass and her porpoise pal are best of buds again, and somehow battling the invisible man’s inner demons causes the people around town to become more eco-friendly. As I said, it’s nonsensical and makes it hard to become invested in Balan Wonderworld‘s narrative, as paper-thin as it is.
Move Over, Kid Chameleon
Of course, platformers aren’t exactly known for having gripping narratives. With that in mind, I could overlook Balan Wonderworld‘s weird storytelling so long as the core gameplay was engaging. The problem is its moment-to-moment gameplay is just as all over the place as its plot.
Much like SEGA Technical Institute’s 1992 platformer, Kid Chameleon, the game allows you to collect various costumes, each with its unique abilities. These outfits are found in crystals, but you’ll need a key to open them. This extra step seems a bit excessive because keys are almost always sitting in plain sight within spitting distance of the costume they’re meant for. The Jumping Jack costume allows you to flutter jump like Yoshi to clear wide gaps. On the other hand, Soaring Sheep can leisurely glide through the air like a wayward cotton ball and ride air currents to reach high ledges. Other costumes are more contextual. Take Gear Prince, for example, who can operate gearboxes to manipulate doors and platforms. Or Bulldozer, who can push heavy boxes out of the way to create platforms or activate machinery.
While not overly imaginative, these ensembles serve a clear purpose and do a meaningful job of expanding your repertoire of abilities. Unfortunately, many of Balan Wonderworld‘s costumes feel woefully underutilized. Or even worse, totally useless, like the aptly named Box Fox suit will turn you into a box when it feels like it. Others become redundant within minutes of getting them. For instance, Jellyjolt allows you to swim through suspended currents. However, moments later, you’ll unlock Dynamic Dolphin, which gives you the power to both swim AND jump, rendering the squid-kid garb you only just obtained obsolete.
Balan Wonderworld utilizes a single-button control scheme. Balan Company’s Noriyoshi Fujimoto told TechRadar in a recent interview that this decision was made to make the action controls “intuitive, and the gameplay simple enough to be enjoyed by anyone.” While I can respect this notion, it makes things more complicated than they need to be and can lead to some pretty frustrating moments. If a costume has an ability mapped to the action button, such as punching, throwing projectiles, etc., they will be unable to jump. As you can imagine, this is a predicament that can be quite problematic in a platforming game.
Developers Balan Company and Azrest tried to compensate for this by allowing you to swap between 3 costumes at once. However, because costumes are lost when you take damage, you’ll often have to backtrack to a checkpoint and select a character who can jump so that you can get past a small gap and proceed to the next area. And yes, this is just as annoying as it sounds. Even without considering this unfortunate design choice, simple platforming can feel like a chore thanks to Balan Wonderworld‘s generally stiff and unresponsive controls. I lost count of how many times I ended up falling into the void because my character refused to activate their ability despite my futile button presses.
Welcome To The Inner Worlds
Balan Wonderworld features 12 stages, each featuring two acts and a boss fight. As for the locations themselves, they’re mostly your typical platforming fare. You’ve got your ice, fire, water, and sky-themed locales. And they all feature the same kind of hazards you’d expect to come across. My personal favorite of the bunch was stage 10, which takes place within the conscience of a struggling artist. The whole setting is essentially Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” come to life, and it’s pretty fun to explore with its surreal, shifting design.
Each area has golden Balan statues to find. These collectibles function like Super Mario 3D World‘s stars, and you’ll need to collect a predetermined number of them to unlock the next set of levels. While they’re not particularly well-hidden, every stage has a handful of statues that you won’t be able to get until you return later with the appropriate costumes. This does add some replayability to the game, and with 300 statues to collect, there’s certainly enough here to keep completionists busy. Apart from the collectibles, the game’s areas are mostly straightforward. If you’re not big on snatching up collectibles, most players should be able to barrel through even the game’s later stages without any problems.
Balan Wonderworld’s boss fights are exciting until you realize each can essentially be defeated using the same strategy. They only take three hits to kill, and you can re-use the same attack as many times as you want. The only real reason for spicing up your strategy is that you’ll earn a “fighting style” trophy for each different attack you perform. I wish these fights offered more of a challenge because they feature some great designs that would have looked right at home in Nights: Into Dreams.
Exit Stage Right
While Balan Wonderworld has a few interesting ideas tucked up its costumed sleeves, none of them are executed particularly well, which makes the game feel like a real chore to play. From its dozens of forgettable costumes and frustrating mechanics to its uninspired visuals, it’s hard to recommend adding this one to your PS5 library, especially when there are much better platformers like Astro’s Playroom and Sackboy: A Big Adventure already available.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PS5 (reviewed) PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PC; Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: Balon Company, Azrest; Players: 1-2; Released: March 26, 2021
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy.